There isn’t a substrate that is completely safe. Unfortunately. You just have to use your common sense and choose what you think is best. I have asked around in several BD-forums about substrates and I get as many answers as I get replies… It is difficult to choose… But there are substrates that are safer than others are – so at least try to find one that is as safe as possible for your dragon!
I personally use bran as a substrate for my adult dragons. It is harmless in case they eat it by mistake, it kind of looks like sand, it doesn’t dust more than sand, it is cheap and it isn’t heavy like sand. The only negative thing I can think of about bran is that it is a little bit dehydrating on the dragons’ skin. But if you mist your dragon regularly it shouldn’t be a problem. But – be careful not to wet the bran too much. Bran moulds easily…
Papertowels & Newspaper
Paper products are the safest materials to use as a substrate. Newspaper or papertowels are safe and cheap bedding.
Paper products are very easy to change. I used papertowels on top of newspaper for my babies. For my adults I use bran.
Indented brown paper
Text by Chris Allen: I think by far it is the best substrate for adults, sub adults, and babies if you wanted to.
I use paper towels for babies, but for all my other dragons I use an indented brown paper. There is no dust,
no spot cleaning, no stinky substrate, no heavy buckets or bags of sand, and its easy to make fit in any cage
with some folding if necessary. When you clean with this paper, you take out the paper, which is taking out all the feces. Plus that makes it easier to disinfect more often as you just have to take out the paper and the dragons and then spray down the cage. It is not expensive, but not as cheap as sand either. You can purchase it in different widths. You can also buy the dispenser which lets you set the paper in it and tear of pieces as you need. By far the best change I made with how I keep my dragons.
Most people use sand for their dragons. It has it advantages - and disadvantages. It looks nice, it is fairly
cheap and most dragons like it. But - it can also cause serious impaction and even death if the dragon eats some
sand by mistake. Sand is actually not natural for bearded dragons as many people think. In Australia
(where bearded dragons come from) the sand is usually mixed with dirt and pressed into a hard ground so it is
less easy to ingest. It is not a Saharan-type of desert.
In search for calcium captive beardies may eat sand deliberately or by accident when it sticks to tongues or food items.
Silica sand is sharp-edged and it can compact in the gut and cause fatal impaction.
If you use sand - make sure you get a brand that doesn’t dust. This is why you shall get washed playsand.
Do not use sand for small bearded dragons. They taste everything with their tongue and it is dangerous if they swallow some sand – it causes impaction.
Reptile carpet/rubber mats
This is safe - the lizard can’t eat the mat so it won’t cause impaction. On the other hand - it can be hard to keep it clean. You might have to remove the whole carpet and clean it when the dragon poops. For me, that seems a bit too much work… The lizards’ claws can also easily get stuck in the carpet.
Alfalfa pellets (rabbit food)
This is fairly safe - if the dragon doesn’t eat it. If swallowed the pellets expand because it gets moist,
so if the dragon eat the pellets it can cause dehydration - or serious impaction.
It will grow mold if it gets wet and mold is VERY dangerous. So it has to be kept dry. Pellets are also very noisy -
in my opinion..! When the dragons move around it can get quite loud!
Substrates I wouldn't use myself
Note: I have collected this information at other sites, I haven’t tried most of those substrates myself.
It has big pieces and if a dragon swallow a piece of the bark – it can get stuck in the throat or in the stomach. Repti-Bark is very fibrous and could easily end up causing impaction and has been known to end up lodged in the vent. (When Teo was a baby I was recommended by the pet store to use Repti-bark. I stopped as soon as I learnt the danger about it. Luckily Teo didn’t have any problems when she was on it.)
Desertblend - crushed walnut shells.
If ingested, this can inflame and irritate organs, causing internal damage, bleeding and death.
By Jenn Harrell: Walnut Shell (LizardLitter, etc) is one of the worst... it has a reputation for nasty impactions and ripping their guts apart as it passes through them... The grain is very sharp and large - awful stuff.
By Jenn Harrell: Calcisand/Vitasand is awful stuff because it causes impactions (clumps when wet). It is of a large and sharp grain size that can cause cuts internally, and it is NOT digestible. It barely breaks down in acids and what does break down can throw the pH balance of the stomach acids off causing a number of digestive problems. It is also very irritating to scales and can even dye the dragon’s skin odd colors.
By Jenn Harrell: Reptisand/Quartz Sand is another reptile substrate marketed to dragons that I say stinks. Its very, very, very fine to the point it causes shed problems and irritates their eyes.
If ingested corncobs absorb moisture and swell, which can cause impaction, bleeding and death.
Woodshavings from Cedar or Pine
Cedar had dangerous aromatic oils and pine can get impacted if ingested. Since this substrate is small pieces - it is also dangerous if the dragons swallow some of it…
Cheri about substrates
Do loads of research and sort through it yourself is the best advice.
Many times people come on forums, make statements and others believe them since they have a business name or website
attached to their names.... They MAY know less than those they are advising. I have seen breeders that are plagued with
health problems come on here and advice others to follow their husbandry..... AUGH!!!!!!
The Internet is a wonderful tool for our generation, but it is also a dangerous one in some hands and came be
very damaging. People can and do present themselves to be more than what in fact they are.
A few times a year we always have others join that represent themselves to be great breeders with more knowledge
than anyone they know, yet they ask some basic questions themselves and also give what many consider to be poor advise.
Its so easy to parrot and plagiarize and state "we are knowledgeable".... But it is hard to do accurate research and tests.
Don't hesitate to ask others to site their sources, studies and findings and don't be afraid to speak out when your
work shows differently..... We all learn by that and also learn who we can trust to listen too and who only parrots
something they have read somewhere else (which may not be accurate) or only here to promote themselves..
Now, that said... IMO for whoever trust it
1. Sand is Sand, its heavy, it DOES NOT move through the digestive tract!!!! It impacts, there is not doubt about that,
go to Yahoo group "Pogona" or "Pogona_diseases" and read all the owners problems with it, whether Calci-sand
(great for making sand castles) or Repti-Sand (if it's so natural... how come its colored and dyes off on
the dragons feet?) or play sand..... the risk is still there or dust inhalation, bacteria and impaction.
2. Alpha pellets or rabbit pellets, smells good, looks cool, but harbors bacteria and is a known cause of mold!
MOLD = bad news for dragons... it creates alpha toxins and harbors aspergillus B mold.. Nothing more needs to be said.
3. Dragons do not live on sand in the wild, nor do they stay in one small area long. They live in a variety of
areas including desert, grasslands, woodlands and rain corridors! And they move around.
Putting dragons in captivity we need to do what they can no longer do for themselves - which is change their floor area.
Otherwise you have bacteria build ups and the risk of molds/fungus.
What you choose is up to you and what your dragons seem happy in, but make it an educated choice, not because someone
with a business name states it is so.
The Reptile Rooms
"LdyPayne" about substrates
Sand in bearded dragon natural habitats isn't 3 inches deep, a lot of times it's hard as dried clay.
Then there are rocks, grass etc., always changing as they move around. In captivity we have to find a balance between
what is good for the dragon, easy for us to keep their environment clean and what looks good.
Personally, the latter is the least important than the first two points. If I wanted a nicely landscaped glass tank,
I would use colored glass and plastic or satin plants.. And put in a toy lizard to complete the pretty display.
Plastic reptile toys are looking more and more real, especially those that cost more than $20.
For my bearded dragon's adult home I had originally planned to use washed play sand. I even designed the cage to
have a plexiglas section along the front to help keep sand from being kicked out of the cage as could happen if
the entire front was screen. I also had it designed so there wasn't a lip to make it more difficult to brush out
the sand when it came time to change it. By the time the tank was finished built, I decided to go for plastic
tablecloth instead. The real reason I decided to not use sand, was the hassle of lifting a 50 lb.
from my car to my house, then lugging buckets of sand from the basement, to the tank.. And the task of cleaning the cage.
I was especially glad when I noticed some baby bearded dragons at the local pet store on sand
(not sure if it was calci-sand or the repti-sand they were on, they look the same to me) who would do the taste lick...
And their tongues get all covered with sand. Then it would spend a few seconds swallowing the sand, then did it again.
The dragon I bought from a breeder often taste licks his enclosure. Often enough that I notice it whenever he is moving
around in the tank and I can just imagine how much sand a dragon can pick up just in a day from doing what it would
normally due. Anybody want to get an ideal how much sand can be picked up on a tongue... Dip the tip of your own
tongue into some sand, I am sure you will find it's quite a bit.
Read more about substrates at
Tosney's Bearded Dragon Care
Kathryn Tosney is a Professor of Biology at the University of Michigan.
Do you have experiences according to substrates?
Please Contact me.